The towns south of San Francisco are strewn along the peninsula like postwar carpenters' fallout, to invent a disease, and the football team called the 49ers essentially belongs to this area, which, among other things, has contributed the "Mexicatessen" to neighborhood groceries. The 49ers live and train and hide out mostly around Redwood City, far from the culture, sophistication and intellectual debate of Nob Hill's hotel lobbies. So the real question posed by the resurgence of the team that once belonged to Kezar Stadium and Hugh McElhenny and Y. A. Tittle and John Brodie is whether the newest savior, Jim Plunkett, will be able to throw more touchdown passes than there are freeway exits in San Jose.
Last Saturday night at Candlestick Park, Plunkett had very few opportunities to do much in that direction because the 49ers got involved in a football game with the Atlanta Falcons that their general manager, Lou Spadia, described as "the kind of thing that will bring back peewee golf." Still, the 49ers won 15-0, which left this utterly surprising team with a glorious 6-1 record halfway through the season, not to mention the lead in the NFL's Western Division, which the Los Angeles Rams are supposed to own. It was also the first five-game victory streak for the 49ers in almost 20 years.
Most of the credit for the humiliation of Atlanta must go to the feisty members of the 49ers' defensive platoon that forced the Falcons to perpetrate every blunder known to football in the course of the evening. Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman, the 49er defensive ends, and Cleveland Elam and Jimmy Webb, the tackles, should have been arrested for trespassing; they spent more time in the Atlanta backfield than any of the Falcon runners.
The 49ers scored first when the Falcons went back to punt, and the center snap—well, by now, it may have come down somewhere near the Bay Bridge. Steve Mike-Mayer later kicked a 20-yard field goal, and the 49ers had a 5-0 lead at the half as the crowd of 50,240 was wondering why the baseball season had started so early. The San Francisco offense was not very offensive in the second half either, managing only Mike-Mayer's 27-yard field goal and Kermit Johnson's one-yard run for the game's lone touchdown. But luckily for the 49ers, Hart, Hardman and Co. played their usual ferocious game. Or, to put it another way, the 49ers didn't surrender a touchdown for the third straight week.
The 49er front four sacked Atlanta Quarterback Kim McQuilken six times, something that his Lehigh days had hardly prepared McQuilken for. They also got his replacement, Scott Hunter, twice as the Atlanta passing, ahem, attack finished the night with a net loss of 39 yards. The Falcons' running game managed to produce 83 yards, but as every second-grader in Palo Alto knows, 83 minus 39 means a total offense of 44 yards—or, as Spadia implied, an argument for peewee golf. "We were in a battle out there," McQuilken said later, "and we got the worst of it."
Rather than dwell on the atrocities, however, it will be far more interesting to discuss some of the things that have led to the instant recovery of the 49ers, all the while keeping in mind that their schedule thus far has been filled with a whole lot of Atlantas and Lehighs.
The opening victory over Green Bay found Plunkett throwing two touchdown passes to Willie McGee, and Delvin Williams rushing for 121 yards. The score was 26-14.
Although the score of the Chicago game insinuates that the 49ers were in it (they lost 19-12), they never actually were. The Bears, as much of a surprise in their own way as the 49ers, completely controlled the contest as Walter Payton sped through various portals of Candlestick for 148 yards, and a tough Bear defense made Plunkett appear as if his primary concern was to stay alive as he huddled for protection in the passing pocket.
In the season's third game, against Seattle, the 49ers benefited from getting off to a big lead, big enough to hang on for a 37-21 win over the Seahawks as Plunkett hit McGee for one touchdown and Gene Washington for two.
It was on the fourth weekend, against the New York Jets, that the defense started to do its thing. Hart and Hardman and the others were so murderously effective, with seven sacks, that Plunkett did not have to throw a touchdown pass. The 49ers won with ease, 17-6.